Thursday, November 15, 2012

Firing Live Ammunition with a Flintlock Musket

Last weekend I was finally able to take my flintlock musket (a 1795 pattern Springfield reproduced by the Italian gun maker Pedersoli) out to a shooting range. Besides the fun of trying to punch holes in a cardboard box, I was interested in evaluating the performance of such a weapon with a historical load.

I rolled eight paper cartridges with .65 caliber (that's .65 inches) lead balls, and filled them with 80 grains of FFg blackpowder. My reference book, Arcadi Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles and Carbines (New York: Bonanza Books, 1965), stated that powder loads ranged from 189 grains of "French powder" to 130 grains. Another source I read suggested 110 grains was standard. Not wishing to destroy my musket or myself, I started on the low end. Since the grain or fineness of gunpowder determines how fast it will burn, and thus it's explosive strength, I was wary of older data.

Most books state that smoothbore muskets were ineffective or completely inaccurate at ranges of more than 50 yards. I found, however, that 80 grains of powder  sent the ball thudding into the berm 100 yards downrange. Only one shot, fired by a friend, hit the 3' x 3' box festooned with zombie targets that we set up. However, most of the balls sent up satisfying clouds of dust within a 25' vicinity of where I was pointing the muzzle. Clearly, a soldier could hit a company-sized line of infantry at 100 yards.

The accuracy of smoothbore weapons can be greatly improved by using a larger ball--that is, closer to the .69 caliber size of the bore, reducing windage. By using a lubricated cloth patch, much better accuracy is achieved--but at the cost of a longer and more deliberate reloading time.
  A Mythbusters-style inquiry into tap loading.

As it was, I found even the smaller .65 ball difficult to ram down the bore after it had been fouled by a couple of shots' worth of powder residue. Most secondary works say either that fouling made it necessary to hammer the round into the bore with a handy rock or brute force, and that the bore had to be swabbed out by urinating down the muzzle (a handy trick in a firefight!) or that musket balls could be dropped down the bore and seated effortlessly by slamming the butt on the ground a couple of times. Obviously the latter method, called "tap-loading", won't work with a paper cartridge in a musket with as narrow windage as the .69 caliber French types.

However, the above video proposes to test a film-version of tap loading. They manage to do it because they are spitting a naked ball down the barrel, because the windage of a .75 caliber Brown Bess with a .67 caliber musket ball is much looser, and since we never see them run a ramrod down to measure the distance between the muzzle and the ball when loaded. In all likelyhood even British soldiers never used tap-loading because they would have to strip the ball out of its tied-paper cartridge. They managed just fine with a few strokes of the ramrod.